The death of childhood
Most people wouldn't be bothered to talk about it, not this many years later. This feeling of having lived two lives, together, intertwined like strands of a stick of liquorice.
When we were both ten, my closest friend J.* died. Before, our paths were virtually one: our fathers had studied together in India, our mothers were best friends, our younger brothers were the same age, three years younger than us. American born, we lived in the same neighbourhood, went to the same family potlucks at the houses of other Punjabi immigrants, and sat in the same room of fourth grade class at Woodcreek Elementary. This was Farmington Hills, 1985.
Summer came and so did the news. J.'s plane had been destroyed. Off the coast of Europe somewhere. My mother tried to make the words but she wasn't sure how, and still hasn't been able to put them together. This happened. A bomb exploded in the plane. She's dead. She, and a lot of other people, but no one knows what happened, exactly, or why.
"We still don't know what happened," said Salim Jiwa, author of The Death of Air India Flight 182, whom I interviewed two summers ago when I finally got up the nerve to ask, directly. Many of the key people have since died, and the tangling of inadequate data coupled with failures in-house with Canadian intelligence make it even more sticky to resolve. "It's a cracked mirror," Salim added.
For 30 years I've been wrapping my heart around one giant question: "What about if?" When the impossible thing happens, it shifts forever a person's sense of what's "right" and "wrong." Lumps the whole of all possibility into a giant pool of "maybe".
The older you get, the more you start to see that the world is finite, at least your existence in it is. You read Dr. Suess' "Oh, the Places You'll Go" and get reminded that one day, you don't know which one, you'll wake up to the beginning of the end. Some of us are lucky: we take up the work to discover our true selves and live a life aligned that way.
I could tell you about how it felt to hear the Pledge of Allegiance in class at the start of the next school year, and the announcement that followed about what had happened and how my friend wasn't coming back. How it felt to have all eyes in the new class turn to me, knowing that I must be "feeling something," but not having the words to help me work out what that something really was.
For 30 years I've been angry and sad when people neglect to really think about who they are and why it matters, because some time ago I lost someone very close to me, and felt the black dark spot in my heart not letting go. I wanted to say to them, "It's really important, you know, to be who you are. To do the thing you're here to do." But how could I? I was just ten when J. died, and then we moved that very year, down south from Michigan to the backcountry tobacco farmlands of Wayne County, North Carolina.
Maybe my parents wanted to shelter my brother and me. Maybe they thought that the nearby Seymour Johnson Air Force Base was some sort of "safety". Every time we drove near it, I cringed a little. It wasn't nice, that image of planes blowing up in the sky. My dad used to book our tickets to India in family units. "If we go," he'd say, "we all go together."
I never have forgotten the feeling of sheer dumbfoundedness that morning that plane blew up. It was called Kanishka. Last November, I went to the Golden Temple, in Amritsar, the very spot from which the troubles stirred that led to an escalation of Hindu-Sikh skirmishes including the death of Indira Gandhi at the hands of her own Sikh bodyguards, and much more, and Kanishka's bombing, too.
All these years, I've been meaning to get there. To sit at the edge of the pool of waters where carp float and feed, where the temple shimmers in a reflection, and its carvings are so intricate and refined that you would never believe people capable of such art would hurt anyone. I sat quietly, there. Holding my belly to my heart, feeling the ripple of the years of misalignment, asking, this time out loud, and with less anger, in a whisper that belongs now not to a child, but a grown woman who still hasn't forgotten, not for a minute, about that other, vacant twine on her parallel path of life, the earnest, the pained, and the flowering new voice of righteous indignation minced with compassion, "What about if?"
*Initial has been changed.
Dipika Kohli (@dipikakohli) is writing 'Kanishka'. Find out more at www.kismuth.com/kanishka